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Iowa immigrant gang suspected of al-Qaida terrorist connections

Thursday, September 1, 2005

Midwestern farmlands seem an unlikely hideout for Osama bin Laden's hired hands, but an ongoing federal crackdown reveals the increased presence here of a notoriously violent gang with suspected links to al-Qaida.

Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a gang founded in El Salvador and known for smuggling drugs and immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border, could be bringing terrorists with them.

"The al-Qaida, from what we understand, has been meeting with them in Central America," said Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees national security.

Ortiz testified in March that al-Qaida has offered MS-13 about $250,000 to smuggle "high value al-Qaida operatives across the border."

"Only God knows who or what they've been able to bring in" to the United States, Ortiz told The Associated Press.

The FBI estimates up to 30,000 MS-13s are in the United States.

With help from local agencies, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has arrested more than 630 suspected MS-13 members this year through "Operation Community Shield."

ICE spokesman Tim Counts described MS-13 as "one of the largest and most violent street gangs in the country." Though he could not confirm an al-Qaida connection, "there's always a concern" for that, he said.

MS-13 members have been implicated in dozens of killings across the U.S., including many using the gang's trademark machete. Members often sport symbolic tattoos covering their entire arms or even their faces.

The Washington area ranks as the top U.S. hotspot for MS-13 presence with 95 arrests since February. Long Island, N.Y., and Boston follow. "We've seen them in virtually every major metropolitan area and in what one would consider relatively small communities," said Dean Boyd, ICE spokesman.

At least 10 arrests have been reported in recent weeks in central Iowa - in Marshalltown, Perry and Des Moines.

Marshalltown police arrested an MS-13 member last month but say at least a handful still live here, many dealing in drugs.

On a recent tour of a northeast neighborhood, police pointed to graffiti-covered buildings and run-down houses where MS members are suspected to live. Two Hispanics were riding bicycles down the street, one wearing a No. 99 Raiders football jersey.

"There's one now," Detective James Ulin said, pointing from his patrol car. He explained how the Mara Salvatruchas have factions that name themselves after different streets in Los Angeles, many using the MS-13 name, but this one calling himself an MS-18.

"Nine and nine; that's 18," Ulin said of the jersey, noting how members occasionally try to hide their affiliation from authorities.

He pulled the bicyclists over and arrested one on a warrant for failure to appear in court. He questioned the Raider-clad man - named Pedro - about his gang affiliation.

"I'm clean man," Pedro told Ulin, sweat dripping from his forehead. "I'll see you on the street."

Ulin watched Pedro ride away.

"A lot of officers would stop that kid and not know what the ... jersey meant," said Ulin, adding that Pedro has a history of drug involvement. "I try to keep my eyes open for stuff like that."

This city of about 30,000 is home to a meatpacking plant that in the last decade has drawn Hispanics seeking work.

The growing immigrant population is a draw for MS-13 members looking to "easily hide and operate," said Marshalltown Police Chief Lon Walker.

Walker was one of five police chiefs who met in Washington last month to talk with homeland security officials about the crackdown on MS-13 and other gangs.

"With the border as open as it is, it ought to be a concern because of the terrorist situation," Walker told The Associated Press.

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